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How Sydney Mardi Gras makes gay pride relevant

So much more than a party, Sydney Mardi Gras reaches the issues other LGBT pride events don’t touch
Sydney Mardi Gras is more than a gay party and covers serious issues too.
Photo by ZAC.

I feel compelled to state the case of Sydney's Mardi Gras (MG) – known as the world's biggest outdoor celebration – a title we won in 1993 after drawing a 500,000 strong crowd to watch the one mile LGBTQI parade that lasts three hours. I simply cannot bear anyone to assume that Sydney Mardi Gras is just a good excuse for a party.

First off, just to avoid confusion, the Sydney Mardi Gras parade is the Australian equivalent of a pride event, not to be confused with our Pride party which is the name reserved for Sydney's most commercial, LGBTQI new year’s eve party. The Mardi Gras parade and after-party officially closes the month long LBGTQI festival held every February.

The Sydney MG parade began in 1974 and is steeped in colorful history. Lest we forget, just one generation of fag hags/stags before me would end their night after the social MG equivalent of the day, the Policeman's Ball (I promise I am not making this up), standing on the pavement, waving goodbye to their deviant friends who were unceremoniously shoved into the back of a police van to spend the night in the lock up.

Whilst this scenario defies belief for me and younger generations (we'd take on any copper who'd try this on our friends), that's simply how it used to be. Now the day ends a good 24 hours later and it's the New South Wales Police force MG float that attracts the highest volume of cheers!

And it is precisely the political floats that make Sydney's Mardi Gras parade so unique and special. We have particularly high standards. None of this, throw together a skimpy outfit and dance on a moving float to loud music. Not here possums, where you have to practically audition for your MG concept like The X Factor.

And no floats purely to advertise a gay friendly cafe or club, no matter how institutional. Too commercial equals crass. The stakes are high and the perfect balance needs to be struck between the Dykes on Bikes, the Marching Boys and the sardonic floats designed to entertain and educate you, raise your awareness and make your heart well up with pride.

Furthermore, Sydney MG floats have never limited themselves to single issue lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex concerns but to mainstream human rights issues.

You can always count on the LGBTQI community to stand up for minority rights be it the rights of those living with disability, (signing during all the main stage shows at the after party has been a proud signature feature for close to 20 years), the homeless, the aged, indigenous Australians, high rates of youth suicides, people living with HIV, asylum seekers and refugees; to raising climate change awareness and, of course, to celebrate Sydney's incredible multicultural community. For one night of the year, all are met with cheers not jeers.

Imagine it's the Bicentenary Year, 1988 (ie 200 years since the white settler invasion of Australia). And guess who is leading the MG float? An indigenous Aboriginal guy dressed as Captain Cook on an Aboriginal float. Gulp. Heart in mouth. (It would be 20 years later before the broader community would utter the word ‘sorry’).

But my personal favorite was the Children Overboard float of MG 2002 inspired by the scandalous reaction in August 2001 by the Australian authorities to the Captain of the Norwegian ship MV Tampa who alerted authorities to a distressed fishing vessel carrying over 400 Afghani asylum seekers.

In response the government falsely accused Afghani asylum seekers of throwing their children overboard. The headlines at the time read: ‘Do we want this kind of people in our country?’

Hand on heart, witnessing the Children Overboard float was one, of the few moments I felt proud to be Australian during an otherwise bleak, disgraceful decade.

On the Tampa phobia float, Prime Minister John Howard and Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock were throwing plastic baby dolls overboard. The babies were being caught in the loving arms of the LBGTQI community. ‘Compassion’ and ‘humanity’ were glued on each child.

In hindsight this may sound surreal, yet the government fed such dramatic images to a largely docile public, with the complicity of the media who were largely asleep at the wheel. It’s hard to imagine any other platform being able to pull off such harsh imagery and still being received by such a warm, adoring public, hundreds of thousands strong.

No matter how heavy the issue, it seems we can all cope with it on the happiest and proudest night of the year. MG floats remain in one’s memory, long after we've forgotten everything else.

And for the record, for the first 20 or so years of its history, the Sydney Mardi Gras never received $1 of state funding – despite holding the title as being the greatest single source of revenue for New South Wales tourism for years. Of course there is now big corporate sponsorship, but the most fabulous and creative outfits are still all lovingly hand-stitched – think Priscilla.

So please, don't ever consider Sydney MG to be just some excuse for a party. Sydney MG is the one night of the year where everyone can feel free, camp and fabulous and since 1994 you can do this from the comfort of your own living room on primetime TV.

For a young person feeling isolated in a country town who is contemplating suicide, this can already mean something.

Sydney's Mardi Gras might have changed from shoestring budget to big bucks, but the hours of choreography, needlework and even the one mile route itself (an ever-so-slight gradient to cater for our high heeled friends), are steeped in radical, political dissention and intellectual vigor. And lashings of fun.

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